"The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them. Michael Lewis takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. At Agriculture, the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it's not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do. Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. But if there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes -- unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system: those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.
It’s about the transition non-actions of the Trump administration, though Trump himself is only present by his absence; it’s not an insider tell-all like the recent books Fire and Fury (Michael Wolf) and Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse (Bob Woodward). Much of the transition for new presidential administrations in the U.S. involves the appointment of leaders for the various federal departments. Based on interviews with department staff, the Trump administration apparently considered this an extremely low priority, partly because of an ideological aversion to “big government,” and partly due to general ignorance about what the departments actually do (perhaps the two are intertwined). The result was that either positions were not filled or filled based on blatant crony capitalism. The ignorance about federal government functions is not unique to the Trump administration; Lewis’s theme is that most Americans have no idea of the extent of big government’s contributions to the welfare of the nation.
Based on my limited reading of Lewis’s oeuvre (Flash Boys & Boomerang: the Meltdown Tour), he gets his themes across through stories, about or told by his interviewees. Lewis sets the stage by recounting Chris Christie’s short-lived experience on the Trump transition team. It’s not hard to see why Putin might have manipulated the election to favor Trump. Trump’s indifference to his responsibilities seems to be a more efficient way to destroy the U.S. government than a thousand sleeper agents.
Lewis interviews government servants who work or worked behind the scenes. There is Max Stirner, instrumental to the implementation of federal laws for transition protocols that Trump and his staff resisted or ignored. There is John MacWilliams, formerly of the DOE (Department of Energy) to introduce the responsibilities of that department that most Americans might be unaware of. The case study of the Hanford nuclear waste site should give you nightmares. Meanwhile, there is a theme introduced by ARPA-E, a research group sponsored by DOE, that does research private capital focused on short term gains is structurally unwilling to finance. As Lewis continues, ARPA-E is an example of a general hostility to scientific evidence that the Trump administration shares with a significant portion of the American citizenry.
We learn through the stories of Kevin Concannon and Kathie Otecki that USDA oversees scientific research, food stamps, and food inspection, which gives Lewis an opening to discuss American attitudes toward food stamp recipients. A recent article in Aeon, The Bad News on Human Nature, in 10 Findings from Psychology has been criticized for cherry-picking to generalize about human nature in general, but a number of points do seem to be relevant to the American situation:
*We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human
*We believe the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.
*We are blinkered and dogmatic.
*We are vain and overconfident.
*We are moral hypocrites.
*We are all potential trolls.
*We favor ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits.
Just considering food stamps, agricultural research, and food inspection, it could be argued that USDA saved more American lives than Homeland Security and the U.S. military combined. As a side note, one of the rare Trump appointees, Brian Klippenstein, seems to have been obsessed with eliminating USDA regulations on animal abuse.
Another Trump appointee was Barry Myers (CEO of AccuWeather), a gross example of crony capitalism. Lewis explains how the Department of Commerce is responsible for most things statistical (census, weather). Myers’ efforts before and after the appointment were to undermine the work of the National Weather Service (paid for by the taxpayer). This information was free to the public, but Myers saw it as competition for his commercial weather app, even though the app derives all of its information from the National Weather Service database. Kind of a fox in the henhouse situation.
Appropriately, Lewis ends the book on government research on tornadoes. The fifth risk is chaos, the unpredictable. Unlike hurricanes, where tornadoes will appear seems to be completely random within certain geographical areas of the Midwest. Although Lewis focuses much of his book on risk analysis that can be mathematized by statistics and probability theory, for chaotic puzzles like tornadoes, the best approach seems to be social science-psychological theory – how to convince people to shelter immediately when a tornado is on its way. Unfortunately – consider food stamps – Lewis doesn’t seem to be all that confident that a strategy of psychological persuasion is ever going to be effective with America’s elected leaders or its voters.
Lewis’ development of the first two topics is both successful and quite enlightening. For instance, he tells the story of asking the chief risk officer for the Department of Energy, the agency that oversees both our nuclear energy program and the nation’s nuclear weapon arsenal, to rank his most worrisome concerns. The fifth risk listed, after obvious ones such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, was the threat of bad project management, which becomes a theme for the entire book. The author also details how access to publicly funded data—especially that involving weather forecasting—has become increasingly restricted and co-opted for use by the private sector. On the other hand, Lewis is far less effective in promoting his overt political agenda; while much of this information is infuriating, too much of it is unfocused, underdeveloped, and a little dated. So, although this book is worthwhile for the message it delivers, it nevertheless seemed to be a hastily constructed effort that falls short of the extremely high standard that the author has set for himself with his past work.
The United States populace has an interesting relationship with government. Liberals often won’t even fly the American flag, because they see it as synonymous with war and terrorism. And yet conservatives don’t like government either, constantly looking for ways to reduce its ability to serve its people.
The United States is also a nation of immigrants, and it is those families that have recently immigrated that often are the best at feeling gratitude for the competence that our government still commands.
The Trump administration is an insurgency. Steve Bannon’s blueprint—to dismantle the United States empire from within the halls of government—has been flourishing.
And yet, for the 4,000 politically appointed officials the Trump administration has had to work with, there are two million government employees. This massive institutional inertia is the only reason our country doesn’t look like Venezuela right now.
Unlike some of Lewis’ other work, this book lacks a strong narrative arc. The stories are interesting, and tangentially-related. The book has some introduction, but lacks any kind of conclusion. I’m not sure Lewis consciously understood he’s in mourning. The title is equally unimpressive.
That said, the stories were fascinating. The United States government has created departments within departments over the years in an organic and often-surprising fashion. Did you know that the Department of Energy maintains our nuclear arsenal (instead of the military)? Did you know that the Obama administration created a Chief Data Scientist, responsible for open-sourcing all non-confidential data?
For all the talk of risk, climate change and food security were only a footnote, disproportionately underrepresented.
In conclusion, this book is fun, short, and sad.
Lewis did a lot of research for this book previously but then the trump administration provided a timely moment when all of a sudden Departments weren’t being filled with appointed leaders. He toured the country asking people in Department of Energy, Agriculture, commerce etc what kept them up at night. Their answers are eye-opening. So many of these departments are only in the news when they have an error, not for everything they do right and programs that make America possible. Many of the people he interviewed have been asked many times to go to the private sector but feel their duty to serve the country. It gives a different outlook than sloths running a bureaucracy that is often the negative stereotype.
As the NYTimes said “I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if Lewis wrote it.”
I did not expect Lewis to be a fan of Trump' what this book is about is that Lewis has discovered thst almost all of federal agencies have morphed into something very different, Trump has been elected president and he has no idea as to what to do, apart from firing the wrong people, I guess the book's title refers to the risk that an ignorant population when electing s president chooses an idiot.
The third chapter where he focused on the Dept of Commerce and the NWS was the most interesting to me. No matter the politics, I fear that the willful ignorance currently in power within our federal government will cause harm that might take a long time to reverse.
Sounds like these behemoths could do with some simplification and reorganisation then? There's certainly an argument for it. But to reorganise requires understanding, care, thought and intelligence. None of which Trump appointees have.
Have you wondered why Federal Government's response to COVID-19 has been, at best, laggardly and at worst criminally negligent? The answers are all here. As Lewis presents it, ignorance is not just an unfortunate side effect of the Trump regime but a deliberate policy. If you don't understand an issue, you don't have to deal with it. If you aren't even aware of an issue you can brush it aside. Ignorance is easier; ignorance is bliss. Experts are troublemakers - much easier to get rid of them and replace them with fawning lackeys. The COVID response is disaster enough, but you are left being glad that at least there hasn't been a nuclear accident to deal with; because, for the first time in history, the US probably wouldn't be able to
So whilst Trump appointees such as Rick Perry, Barry Myers and Wilbur Ross may entertainingly come across as, in turn, incompetent, corrupt and hopelessly out of his depth, that isn't really the point. The point is that you have to at least understand what government does when you are supposed to be running it. You have to do the work. As we all know, Donald Trump isn't interested in work and is pulling this edifice down without even knowing it
Scary stuff indeed. Minus half a star because it feels like a combination of 1 long and 2 mid length magazine pieces. So structurally its far from perfect. But the content is devastating
The book explains how much, and how unknown, the work of government is done, and how lack of transition planning has interrupted and harmed the American people. Trump refused to spend money on planning (he thought it was his own money and that dollars spent on planning was theft), and refused to spend any time preparing for the transition (Trump said they could take off a half hour at the victory party and do it all then). The result was chaos and harm. Much of it was naiveté, ignorance and vicious Republican partisanship. Nineteen months into the Trump administration, and much work has been left undone, done badly, and ruined.
Recommended for public libraries and political book collections.
The last several pages were all about tornados and NOAA and weather warnings and the numbers of people killed in some of the worst storms. Early on in the book though a theme seemed to deal with the Trump transition and how in many cases the Trump team did not appear at the major agencies to discuss handoff issues until the days leading up to the inauguration, and how in many cases the Trump team was one individual who stayed for only for a few hours, and on at least one occasion only a single hour. But what that had to do with the fifth risk…?
Sprinkled throughout the book though were some rather interesting stories about how some very bright, successful people landed their jobs and managed their careers, including an astronaut and a software developer who established a business helping farmers utilize data that had earlier been stored in a Department of Commerce basement. I think I have that right. Confused? Me too ! Hence the 1 star. At the penultimate page I recalled the fifth risk – people, but I still have no idea what the other four are, nor do I really care.
You might be thinking at this point that this reviewer may be a bit senile. Can’t remember this, can’t remember that. In my defense I must mention that I just finished Andrew Roberts’ 982 page “Churchill”, a five star, and I recall in vivid detail much of the excellent writing in that bookI’ve never read Michael Lewis before. I was aware of him because of “Moneyball” and have had it on my to-read list for a long time. But after “the Fifth Risk” I don’t think I’ll risk anymore Michael Lewis. I just took a glance at some of the blurbs on Amazon for “Risk”. Maybe there’s a halo effect here. I suspect Lewis has written some great stuff in the past, but this isn’t one of them.